Through MLB’s Free Agent Spending Spree, Braves Hold Steady

Published: Dec 27, 2022  |  

Dan works in the sports media and technology spaces

Baseball’s winter meetings have come and gone, marking a seminal point in the offseason when a flurry of free-agent activity takes place. Many of the sport’s biggest names are now off the board, as $2.3 billion worth of contracts have been handed out. Contenders such as the Yankees, Phillies, Padres, and Mets played an active role in the shaping of this market. Accordingly, stars are being compensated at rates exceeding some of the most grandiose expectations going into this period.

However, one of the teams expected to be a leading contender for the 2023 World Series was notably quiet. Even more remarkable is that this was their expected strategy, and had no impact on their projections for their season. As the world around them moved quickly, the Atlanta Braves have stood still, staying the course. 

While the rest of the league—especially the mid to larger market clubs—spends exorbitant wages on the open market, the Braves have remained undeterred. They have established an approach to identifying in-house talent and getting ahead of the 29 other clubs by locking players in well before they reach free agency. This allows Atlanta to sign as many potential homegrown stars as possible to contracts considered “under market” value. They are willingly trading years of cheap team control at the beginning of their careers for bigger savings down the road.

This presents the Braves with both a quality and quantity approach to team building. As other contenders prioritize signing older free agents to either “albatross” contracts where the return is frontloaded with the expectation of a poor-performing second half or, the most recent trend, signing older players to short-term deals with high AAVs, the Braves continue to blaze their own path. This strategy has drawn wide acclaim and praise across the sport.

However, this method is not without risk: inherently, the Braves are gambling that each player they forfeit years of minimum salaries for will grow into stars whose value will exceed this first contract. This requires top-flight front office performance in scouting, drafting, signing, and developing players. So far, the results are promising on return contributions, with a recent World Series title and consistent playoff appearances. However, as evidenced by an early exit last season, things can change quickly. 

The Braves began to approach team building this way by signing Ozzie Albies to a 7-year contract worth $35M early into his service time. The bigger domino fall came when Ronald Acuna Jr committed to eight years and $100M. This has been followed by extensions granted to Austin Riley (ten years, $212M), trading for and extending Matt Olson (eight years, $168M), and most recently, rookies Michael Harris (eight years, $72M) and Spencer Strider (six years, $75M). Even as everyone else in the league appears focused on free agents, the Braves continue to seek affordable talent with multiple years of team control this offseason, as seen by their acquisition of catcher Sean Murphy on December 12th from their favorite trade partner, the Oakland As.  

Some question why young stars such as Acuna, whose peers have gone on to sign longer contract extensions in excess of $300M, would accept such deals. These players are also making a calculated gamble, betting on the upfront insurance of signing these contracts early in their careers. This is a de facto trade for guaranteed wealth, delaying free agency until the latter half of their prime. As more high-value contracts are given to players in their early thirties—meaning many of these players will be eligible for a second big contract during their careers—this practice becomes harder to argue with on the player’s side as well. 

However, as these extensions seem to go out earlier and earlier every season to more promising young players, the Braves have simultaneously failed to lock up longtime organization mainstays and stars as well. The biggest example of this was Freddie Freeman, without whom it is no exaggeration to say they would not have won the World Series in 2021. Sadly, Braves fans watched the former MVP and face of the franchise, who was not secured to a long-term extension early in his career, leave for a free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers not long after this title.

As team ace Max Fried and the often-injured but supremely talented Mike Soroka’s own free agencies quickly approach in 2025, the possibility of not being able to retain these invaluable contributors is surely present on the organization’s radar. Recently, the team just watched another core piece of the organization leave for more lucrative free-agent pastures, as Gold Glove-winning All-Star shortstop Dansby Swanson signed a 7 Year, $177M contract with the Chicago Cubs. This poses a challenge for the Braves’ title odds, as they have no clear successor in place behind him.

Given everything we now know about how the team operates, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them let Swanson walk in favor of turning to rookie prospect Vaughn Grissom. It remains to be seen, however, if Grissom can capably serve in a full-time starting role at a marquee position for a first-place team. If he can, we have a pretty clear idea on when he can expect an extension offer. 

While rivals like the Phillies—who upset and eliminated the Braves in the first round of the playoffs en route to a National League championship—and the Mets commit more and more to signing established stars on the open market, it becomes fair to wonder how long the Braves can sustain a strategy of sitting out free agency. Yes, the Braves just won a World Series two years ago and are considered a front-runner next year. The potential to establish a dynastic window around this young core remains, but windows have a funny way of closing quickly. Especially in the NL East, perhaps the best all-around division in the MLB. 

This is not to say Atlanta is not well positioned for years to come- as most clubs remain envious of how they are building from within, and they continue to get better to this day. However, it is not without reason to argue that Atlanta, for how celebrated they rightfully are, should consider a middle ground to not only extend young talent- but retain core free agents to maximize their chances to win more titles. Things will be a lot clearer as Swanson makes a decision about where he plays in the coming weeks. How much longer the Braves can delay swimming in the free agent market value pool is less clear.

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